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Is Jason Lewis closing the gap in the Second District?

MinnPost photo by Steve Date
Though Jason Lewis wasn’t the Republican establishment’s first choice of candidates, in recent weeks they’ve started to put money behind him.

An open-seat congressional race like the one in Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District is never taken for granted.

Retiring GOP Rep. John Kline had won easily here since first being elected in 2002. But on August 9, when the Republican Party’s endorsed candidate, Jason Lewis, soundly won his primary, you could almost hear Minnesota Democrats gleefully rubbing their hands together.

Lewis is a former talk radio host with two decades of baggage consisting of incendiary statements on air and a book on states’ rights in which he questioned whether the Civil War should have been fought.

Democrats believed Lewis would be an ideal foil for their candidate, former St. Jude Medical executive Angie Craig, a political newcomer who would seem a sensible choice compared to Lewis the firebrand.

For a time, they appeared correct: Lewis struggled to raise money and earn the backing of key D.C. Republican groups.

But things have changed in the past few weeks, with outside GOP groups committing hundreds of thousands of advertising dollars to the race, independent polling showing a competitive contest, and political handicappers re-classifying it as a true toss-up.

With Election Day three weeks away, has Lewis made the Second District truly competitive?

GOP establishment ignored Lewis…

The CD2 primary was barely over when the Cook Political Report, which rates the competitiveness of political contests, moved the race from the “toss-up” category — where it had sat since Kline announced his retirement last year — to “lean Democratic.”

Lewis’ “long history of provocative statements make Democratic healthcare executive Angie Craig a slight favorite to flip a key swing seat,” Cook’s Dave Wasserman wrote at the time.

The Republican started with a huge cash disadvantage, with just over $100,000 on hand after his primary win. Craig had close to $2 million at the time.

In that scenario, a candidate short on cash would rely on allied groups to come in and air negative ads, but the National Republican Congressional Committee and others didn’t seem so keen on it.

Establishment-minded Republicans, including Kline, had wanted Darlene Miller, a Burnsville businesswoman, to win the GOP primary over Lewis, and some of them mused that nominating Lewis would ensure a Democratic win.

Compounding the problem for Lewis was that the national congressional map expanded thanks to the candidacy of Donald Trump, a development that drew a strong challenger to 3rd District Rep. Erik Paulsen into the race — state Sen. Terri Bonoff.

By late summer, NRCC and other GOP groups had their hands full defending Paulsen, while also bolstering the candidacy of Stewart Mills in the 8th Congressional District.

Pointedly, D.C. called in the cavalry for Mills and Paulsen — Speaker Paul Ryan came to Minnesota to fundraise for them in August. But Ryan did not make a stop for Lewis.

Even past Labor Day, some had written off Lewis, and political observers in Minnesota believed he might not get much help from outside groups.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic-aligned House Majority PAC inundated the airwaves with negative attacks on Lewis, spending a combined $1.2 million.

…until they didn’t

By last week, though, things started to look up for Lewis. The NRCC released a poll on October 12 showing Lewis up on Craig, 36 percent to 33 percent, with 26 percent of voters undecided.

By no means should a partisan poll be construed as a fair reflection of reality — but the takeaway was that national Republicans were finally expending resources to bolster Lewis’ candidacy.

After the poll’s release, the NRCC’s first anti-Craig ad ran on Twin Cities airwaves. (The committee has spent $612,000 total on ads in CD2 so far this cycle. In the competitive race in Minnesota’s 8th District, the committee has put $2.2 million toward backing challenger Stewart Mills.)

Perhaps prompted by that, last Friday — before the first debate between Lewis, Craig, and Independence Party candidate Paula Overby — the Cook Report moved CD2 back into the toss-up column.

Then, on Monday night, a KSTP/SurveyUSA poll was released showing Craig leading Lewis by just five percent, 46 to 41, with 12 percent of voters undecided.

On Tuesday morning, the NRCC was out with a new ad attacking Craig over Obamacare, featuring Gov. Mark Dayton's statement from last week that the law had grown less affordable.

Lewis remains an underdog, but those in Republican circles are appreciating that the CD2 race is still competitive heading into the campaign’s final stretch.

John Rouleau, who runs the GOP-aligned Minnesota Jobs Coalition, put that on Craig, saying she “has proven to be an exceptionally weak candidate… and has drastically underperformed the expectations set for her by the DCCC and the rest of the Democrat establishment that hand-picked her.”

According to Brian McClung, a longtime GOP strategist, “the Craig campaign made a strategic mistake by not defining Lewis early. They allowed the race to stay close and now the NRCC is strongly engaged. Look for this one to stay competitive all the way to Election Day.”

Though Craig had $900,000 on hand at the end of September, and raised $3.4 million total during the cycle, outside Democratic groups are spending heavily now to influence the race.

To Rouleau, that means they know it’s more competitive than they want it to be; indeed, half of the $624,000 that House Majority PAC has spent on the race has come in the last week.

Campaigns go into final weeks in different positions

According to Darin Broton, a longtime DFL operative, analysts like Cook “moved the race way too quickly to lean Democrat.”

Though this district has voted to send a Republican to the U.S. House every election since 2000, it voted narrowly for Barack Obama in 2012 and Sen. Al Franken in 2014. While the most recent round of redistricting is believed to have made it more competitive, CD2 still skews more Republican than CD3, the other GOP-held metro district.

Minnesota’s Second Congressional District

“I think early on, a lot of Republicans here and in D.C. hadn’t thought about this race as on the radar screen. Jason was not their preferred candidate in the 2nd Congressional District,” Broton said, adding that the NRCC seemed to be saving money for other races.

But those races have developed in their favor, he said, citing CD3 and other contests, freeing up resources to help Lewis.

Broton, though he said Lewis is running a “decent” campaign, said that Democrats had gotten a little cocky about Craig’s chances to win in CD2, and had not yet crafted a compelling message for Craig’s candidacy.

“At some point,” Broton said, “there’s gotta be a compelling reason why to hire Angie Craig.”

The Craig campaign, though, is very confident in its operation, and is touting its voter outreach efforts as one of the most comprehensive in state history.

Bernie Hesse, an organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789, has been door-knocking for Democrats in CD2 this cycle. He said he can’t believe how good Craig’s field operation has been. “That’s a huge difference from the last cycles we experienced,” he said.

Nor is the Craig campaign particularly impressed with the newfound outside attention to the race. According to a Craig spokesperson, “National groups have still invested very few resources to support Jason Lewis. It just illustrates how deeply flawed his candidacy is and how reluctant even his own party is to stand up for him.”

But he’ll need them to stand up. Lewis is still at a huge cash disadvantage: by the end of September, he had $57,000 cash on hand, compared to Craig’s $900,000. To stay competitive, he will need to lean heavily on the continued support of outside groups, and earned media like debates and radio and TV appearances.

Republicans concede that isn’t exactly an airtight strategy — but that things are looking up more than they were on August 10.

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Craig Johnson on 10/18/2016 - 12:46 pm.

    Jason cash disadvantage?

    Paul Ryan has erased Lewis’s cash disadvantage as we can all see. The rich wing smear machine is at full throttle as we can see in the contests involving the Craig/Lewis contest, the Nolan/Mills contest and the Bonhoff/Paulson contest.

    As a result of getting starry eyed over the Trump primary circus the Republican Party has finally realized their candidate is unfit, uninformed and incapable. They know they will loose the election at the presidential lever and most likely the control of the senate. The only avenue they have available to sustain broken government is to retain control of the house. Ryan has stopped throwing money away on Trump and shifted it all to protect House seats. Minnesota has three Trumpkins in the race. Jason Lewis, Stewart Mills and Erik Paulson. None have repudiated Trump. The worst of the lot is Lewis, with his ridiculous comments about women, slaver, education and the environment.

    Lets lot let the barrage of fear inciting RNC pac dollars steer us away from the facts. Government has to work, our representatives must work. Lets elect those who see how critical it is to find solutions not opposition.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 10/18/2016 - 01:40 pm.

    I Would Remind My CD2 Friends

    that, as we see so clearly in Kansas,…

    if the Koch brothers (the funding behind these ads) win,…

    EVERYONE else (not in the top .5% loses).

    The “freedom” folk like Jason Lewis so LOVE to lift up as the most important thing in the universe,…

    is really just the freedom for every business and financial huckster who comes along to rip you off,…

    while cancelling out any legal recourse you have,…

    to recover your losses from those who did you physical, emotional, and/or financial damage,…

    even if you can prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt,…

    that the ripoff artists caused those losses by their own negligence or malfeasance.

    • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 10/18/2016 - 09:13 pm.

      Koch brothers, Koch brothers

      Yet it is the Democrats that have the piles of money and are outspending the “party of the rich”. Money that magically comes from somebody…

  3. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 10/18/2016 - 02:33 pm.

    Slavery is OK

    The author failed to mention that “innovative concept”. – where SN employer doesn’t have to pay an employee, because he literally owns him – and his children too. And the guy was very clear he stood behind his words. Slavery is like kidnapping, except in the Old South the “peculiar institution ” was the law. And they wanted to leave the Uniom for that – and Lewis thinks the war was unnecessary. I would think that Republicans could come up with someone with brains and heart that that. And did I mention that slave owners could rape, torture and murder slaves with no consequences?

    Republicans are good at bankrolling pigs with lipstick applied life Lewis. They really don’t care what a guy thinks or does if he is a reliable vote. Of course, there are those who are automatic Republican votes or will always vote for a man over a women, but if you want someone with brains, heart and independence, Craig is your choice.

  4. Submitted by Jim Million on 10/18/2016 - 05:40 pm.

    A tiny bit of clarification

    St. Jude Medical is a medical device manufacturer.
    Angie Craig was head of global human resources.

  5. Submitted by Joe Musich on 10/18/2016 - 08:34 pm.

    I cannot vote for ….

    Either of these candidates. I am suspicious of Big Pharma which candidate Craig has a history. However I have no doubt in my mind that Jason Lewis is Minnesota own Donald Trump. After reading his surly self serving inaccurate commentary pieces in the Strib and watching his public grandstanding I would consider voting him a surrender to the reality of denial. His politics are clear. They do not reflect the public good.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 10/19/2016 - 10:50 am.

      A bit more clarification

      Smith-Nephew Plc is a UK medical device manufacturer specialising in specific tools for surgery and recovery, especially in the field of orthopaedics. Neither Smith-Nephew nor St. Jude is classified as “Big Pharma.”

      For whatever significance one may ascribe to professional background, Craig’s history is administration and human resources in highly specialized companies of the Medical Device sector.

  6. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 10/18/2016 - 11:22 pm.

    Jason Lewis

    He excuses the outrageous, Trump like statements he makes by stating he is paid to be controversial, like that is a good thing and it exonerates his from anything he says. He owns his statements and he also owns Trump. His controversy serves no one but himself. We don’t need Trump and we don’t need Jason Lewis.

  7. Submitted by Beth-Ann Bloom on 10/19/2016 - 03:01 pm.


    A few bad commercials and an inside poll do not characterize a race.

    Sam, before you headline a piece like this you need to visit the district. CD2 is a modern sprawling suburban complex that runs into rural Minnesota. The people of CD2 are too smart to fall for an empty-headed washed up radio commentator who doesn’t even live in their district.
    Angie Craig is one of them. A small town girl who worked hard and climbed the corporate ladder to success. She was willing to step off that ladder to ensure that the way of life that has meant so much to the success of CD2 will be preserved and shared with others-not dismantles.
    Her campaign is relying on talking to Angie’s neighbors on a regular basis and not just counting on commercials.

  8. Submitted by Jim Bernstein on 10/19/2016 - 05:29 pm.

    Jason Lewis Could Win?

    It hasn’t been that long ago that a Republican candidate for Congress arguing that slavery was a tolerable “option” for some or that it should have been left to the states to regulate would have been booed and hissed off the floor. And, that same Republican candidate for Congress who actively supports a presidential candidate who taunted POW’s would have doomed his prospects for election.

  9. Submitted by Jim Million on 10/20/2016 - 08:30 am.

    Well said…

    This was a pretty shallow cut-and-paste piece. Brodey was too lazy to even properly check on Craig’s corporate responsibilities…and I told him so. Craig also stepped “off that ladder” with a boat load of stock option money, after coming to St. Jude just after its stock tanked. She doesn’t need to pander, considering the stock has doubled this summer on takeover news. She’s free to be whatever she and voters wish her to be.

    I’m not in CD2 since leaving high school, but agree on smart constituents, not just in the ex-urban areas but also in remaining milking parlors. Jason Lewis is a joke, from what I hear.

    I don’t know Craig, but did speak with her by telephone soon after her St. Jude baptism by shareholder market fire. She didn’t know me then, and does not now…but, she listened to a small shareholder of market experience when given his bluntly business-like prognostication of the company’s negative ongoing relationship with analysts and large investors. She listened, asked a few questions, and listened a whole lot more without becoming defensive–for well over 30 minutes. I am not a bit surprised by positive comments. One may assume she continues to listen, to listen carefully. What more can one really ask?

  10. Submitted by Julie Stroeve on 10/20/2016 - 05:27 pm.

    CD 2

    If you listen to a Lewis interview and take notes, you’ll notice how similar his views are to The Donald’s. He isn’t fit to hold office at the highest levels of government. On the other hand, Craig is sensible, sensitive, and critical and broad-thinking on a number of issues. The race won’t be decided on qualifications, but on ideology.

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